SF Yiddish Combo promises ‘a wild Klezmer concert’ in Petaluma

Last year, as a musical experiment, Marin County cellist Rebecca Roudman produced a low-key event labeled The North Bay Jewish Music Festival. Held in Petaluma at the 99-seat Polly Klaas Community Theater, the afternoon concert was meant to test the waters to see if Sonoma County would embrace the idea of a festival focused on Jewish music and culture. As experiments go, the results were fairly conclusive.

“We just about packed the place,” said Roudman. “It was a huge success. People came ‒ all kinds of people, young and old ‒ and they loved it.”

It’s no surprise, then, that on Sunday, April 14, Roudman is bringing the festival back to Petaluma for a second year. She anticipates that this one could sell out, paving the way for more events of its kind in the future.

“I really had no doubts that people in Sonoma County would embrace this, because this is dance music, first and foremost,” explained Roudman. “It’s joyous, happy music. It’s music that was traditionally played at weddings and at parties. This is a seated show, but I promise you, there will be dancing in the aisles.”

As in last year’s production, the San Francisco Yiddish Combo ‒ spearheaded by Roudman herself ‒ will once again headline the show with what’s being advertised as “a wild Klezmer concert.” The opening acts are Stephen Saxon, a globe-hopping cantorial soloist and a cappella performer, and Dr. Elaine Leeder, an author and retired sociology professor, who will deliver a short humorous talk.

Roudman is best known for Dirty Cello, the genre-bending band she founded with her guitarist husband Jason Eckl. The San Francisco Yiddish Combo ‒ which Roudman has described as a sort of “accidental side-project” ‒ was formed several years ago when the producer of an upcoming show informed them that, due to certain sensitivities at the venue, they would not be permitted to sing, use bass guitars or drums, or appear under a name that included the word “dirty.” Since Eckl had recently composed a Klezmer-style concerto, they quickly decided to learn more Yiddish tunes, and temporarily adopted The San Francisco Yiddish Combo as their “dirty” free name.

The result was so well-received ‒ and the players had so much fun with that gig ‒ they decided to officially branch out, adding the Yiddish Combo to what has since become an increasingly diversified set of musical offerings. Today, not only do Roudman and Eckl alternate between Dirty Cello and the Yiddish Combo, they’ve also formed a 1940s-era group call The Death & Taxes Swing Band and a large, rock ‘n roll ensemble named The Renegade Orchestra.

“We like to keep people guessing,” she said.

That’s obvious enough. They also like to keep themselves busy.

“Last year’s North Bay Jewish Music Festival was so successful we decided to try it elsewhere too, so last weekend we had the first-ever East Bay Jewish Music Festival, and it ended up drawing a huge crowd, too,” Roudman said.

That show featured a different opening act than will be joining her in Petaluma, and included an entirely different spoken-word presentation by Dr. Leeder.

“She’s a professor emerita from Sonoma State,” said Roudman. “We asked her to join us, but said that we want this to be a festival of joy and inclusion and happiness, so we asked that the talk not be political. I said, ‘Can you talk about something funny?’ and she said ‘Absolutely.’ It’s just a 10-minute talk, and I promise you it will not be boring. At the East Bay event she taught the audience Yiddish swear words. She’s incredibly engaging.”

Stephen Saxon, the other opening act, will likewise offer something fresh and unexpected.

“We like to call him the cantorial basso profundo,” Roudman said. “If you think of a low voice, a bass voice, this is even lower than that. It’s an incredible range. He’s a professional cantor, and he really does interesting stuff. He’s created this unique cycle of songs referencing traditional Jewish music in new ways. Sometimes he has a backing track of his own voices behind him, so he’s almost singing harmony with himself. I’ve really never seen or heard anything like it.”

The festival’s bold range of performers and musical styles is a result of Roudman’s desire to give audiences a truly entertaining, surprising and lighthearted experience. The music played by the San Francisco Yiddish Combo will be similarly full of surprises, as one would expect from someone who ‒ when playing with Dirty Cello ‒ regularly performs cello renditions of “House of the Rising Sun,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

“It’s not all Klezmer music,” she acknowledged, describing what audiences can expect. “You could call it ‘Klezmer adjacent,’ We’ll do things like ‘Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn,’ a 1920s Yiddish musical theater song made popular by the Andrews Sisters. We might do something like ‘Miserlou,’ which was originally a Greek song, but was taken up by a lot of Jewish musicians and then became a Dick Dale surf rock song best known of being in ‘Pulp Fiction’ ‒ so yes, some of our unpredictable sensibilities from Dirty Cello do leak over into this group.”

The purpose of it all, she noted, is simply to have as good a time on stage as the audience is having out in the seats ‒ or in the aisles, as the case may be.

“Our goal for this festival,” said Roudman, “is just to send everyone away, after two hours of great music, with a big, big smile on their faces.”

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